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Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Mesut Özil joins the German Revolution / If the Premier League was won by spending money...

First things first: it would be impossible to write anything about Arsenal FC today without making reference to one particular event which occurred yesterday evening. I am of course talking about the last minute deadline day arrival of £42 million Real Madrid playmaker Mesut Özil. After months of rising anger amongst fans over the club's lack of transfer activity, the majority have now been sent into near delirium by Wenger's audacious move, which obliterates Arsenal's former transfer record by £25 million.

In fact this is the most un-Arsène thing Wenger has ever done.

Le Professeur made his name in this country by signing relatively unknown players for modest fees and turning them into world-beaters á la Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie. Splashing out over £40 million on one player was seen as an insane risk, best left to the Manchester Citys and Chelseas of this world.

But things have changed at Arsenal. After losing many of the team's best players to big spenders City, United and Barca in recent years, the message seems to finally have sunk in that to compete at the top of the modern game, you need players with star quality. And the last Arsenal player that had that headed north to Manchester twelve months ago.

Though many see the Özil transfer as a game-changer at the Emirates, fans shouldn't get too carried away just yet. At the start of summer it was clear that Arsenal ideally needed strengthening all the way through with attacking midfield ironically already our strongest position. Goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano has been brought in on loan presumably to keep Szczesny on his toes, Mathieu Flamini will temporarily provide defensive midfield back-up and Yaya Sanogo will fill in for Giroud if he gets injured. Whilst those options sound slightly more promising than what we had in place a month or two ago, Arsenal still look weak on the bench. Simultaneous injuries to Giroud and the centre-backs would pose a serious problem.

The other slight concern is the pressure that comes with such a price tag. Taking a look at some previous Premier League signings in the same price region as Özil's (Torres, Robinho, Veron), we are reminded that not all of them are successful. A cynic would also say that after failing in their attempted pursuits of stars like Rooney, Higuain and Suarez, when Bale's transfer freed up Madrid's other attackers Arsenal resorted to taking whichever big-name player they could get. However, the last time Arsenal smashed their transfer record by paying for an established European superstar (Dennis Bergkamp in 1995),  he went on to become one of the club's greatest ever players. Besides, it feels great to finally have a buzz of excitement back at the Emirates.

Özil is the third German international in as many years to join the Gunners, linking up with Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski as well as youth players Thomas Eisfeld, Serge Gnabry and Gedion Zelalem. The German football team are currently ranked second only to Spain in the world, having reached the semi-finals of both the World Cup in 2010 and Euro 2012. 

It is easy to draw comparisons to Arsène's recruitment of French internationals during the late nineties, when Arsenal players featured heavily in the teams that won both the World Cup in 1998 and the Euros in 2000. Wenger grew up in the Alsace region in France and was interested in football clubs on the German side of the border just as much as on the French. Perhaps he is remembering his Germanic roots at just the right time.

With all this money flying around, I took the time to compile an alternative Premier League table, showing where each club would finish this season if money spent was all that counted.

As you can see, Spurs would have been runaway winners, though if you subtracted money received to find their net spend, they would be rock bottom. The table does show that even after the Özil transfer, aside from United, Arsenal are still the most frugal of the six big clubs. The squad's lack of depth is worryingly highlighted by the fact that only United, Southampton and Newcastle have signed fewer players than us.

I think realistically what the table suggests is that unless United sign big in January, City and Chelsea will almost certainly get the better of them this time around. After that, it looks as though Arsenal will have an equally large challenge fending off Spurs and Liverpool in the fight for the Champions League spots.

The table conceals the fact that Everton will also be stronger after their deadline day loan acquisitions of Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku. What is clear however is that Newcastle are extremely unlikely to replicate the scare they gave the top four two seasons ago.

It remains to be seen how much of a bearing money will really have on the season's outcome. The Gunners should take confidence from the fact that although Liverpool and Spurs have made good signings this summer, they will need time to gel, whilst the Arsenal squad should be one of the most stable in the league. In fact if we hit the ground running after the international break and make one or two signings in January, I can see Arsenal pushing their way back into the top three this year.

Welcome to Arsenal, Mesut. You're gonna love it here.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Arsenal beat Spurs and it's bye-bye Bale

Christmas comes early to the red half of North London. In fact yesterday was probably the best day to be a Gooner since the victory at Newcastle back in May.

It's amazing how fast the mood can change at Arsenal. After our opening game at Villa things were looking grim from every angle. We'd signed no-one, Spurs had signed everyone and we'd lost 3-1 on the first day of the season. Now just a few weeks on and although the team itself still hasn't been strengthened, the weekend's events will have calmed fans nerves considerably.

Going into the derby I was more concerned than ever about how we'd fare against our near neighbours. As their £100 million worth of shiny new players lined up against our vulnerable and already injury-hit squad I contemplated the scale of the anti-Wenger backlash if we were to lose. In these early season games it is likely that any defeat will be greeted by loud calls for his sacking and, whether these are justified or not, the pressure must be the most immense he's been under at the club. Not that he shows it.

A first half goal was what we needed and Olivier Giroud did the honours, grabbing his third in three Premier League matches to settle everyone's nerves. Or at least it should have done.

Instead the second half was an intense and nervous affair: high tempo, end-to-end attacking and good chances for both sides. We didn't commit too many forward for our attacks and got back to defend well. In the last quarter of the game we seemed to inexplicably lose the ability to clear the ball, and there were several rounds of pinball football inside our area that could have ended up anywhere. As we entered the final five I tensed up, remembering the number of last minute game-savers Bale scored for Spurs last year. Then I remembered that Bale was having a medical in Madrid...

The whistle went and the stadium erupted. Today was all about the three points and although the game could have gone either way at times, it proved to players and fans that whatever has happened off the pitch, when it gets down to eleven vs. eleven, Arsenal will still beat Tottenham.

Whilst missing five first team players.

The day got better when Bale's transfer was finalised a few hours later. The Welshman has been the biggest threat to the North London power balance in decades and though it is sad to see another great player leave the Premier League, the Gooner in me is breathing a sigh of relief. It remains to be seen whether his (seven) replacements will be able to keep Spurs in contention for a Champions League place but beating them at this early stage in the season ensures that we at least get a head start.

The icing on the Sunday dinner would have been a confirmed big-name transfer but with less than twenty-four hours left, we're still making do with rumours, this time of Mesut Özil, Demba Ba and Emiliano Viviano. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I expect at least one move will come off for us today but, unless it's a really good one I'm not going to let Arsène off that easily for what he's put us through this summer.

Yesterday was a good day but there's many more tests to come and we're currently only a few injuries away from a crisis. Today could be good or bad but until 11pm at least, I'm going to revel in what for once was a very fine weekend.